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For nearly two weeks the Los Angeles Lakers hadn't been playing other basketball teams so much as they had been playing against history, and history didn't seem to know how to stop a fast break. Los Angeles had won eight straight playoff games going into last week's NBA finals, and after brushing aside the Philadelphia 76ers 124-117 in the championship opener Thursday night at the Spectrum, it seemed that the Lakers would sweep into the record books. They hadn't lost a game since April 13 (at Golden State) and had already tied the record for most consecutive playoff victories (set by the Minneapolis Lakers in 1948-49 and 1949-50). Then just when it looked as if they had immortality in their grasp, Julius Erving, a historical personage if there ever was one, swooped and soared like an avenging angel.
That's the trouble with the Lakers; every 46 days or so they lose a game. On Sunday they absorbed a 110-94 pounding from the 76ers, and all talk of an L.A. sweep—which by Sunday morning was Topic A of media conversations in Philly—was laid to rest. Laker Coach Pat Riley had tried to minimize the importance of a sweep to his team, but privately he admitted that he hoped the streak would help motivate the Lakers. "Why not go for it?" Riley asked. "That's what I told them. I don't care about records, but if you've got an opportunity, why not try to be the greatest team of all time? Why not?"
It had been a week filled with intriguing questions. Would Dr. J finally get the NBA championship ring that had eluded him in two previous finals—one of them against the Lakers in 1980? Would Riley ever let down his set-it-wet hair and admit the Lakers were playing a zone defense? Could anyone stop Andrew Toney's jump shot? Could anyone find Kurt Rambis' jump shot? Would the Lakers finally suffer the effects of too many long layoffs—28 days of waiting altogether since the end of the regular season?
The Lakers had profited from the nine-day rest they had gotten before sweeping Phoenix in the Western Conference semifinals and then another seven-day hiatus before taking apart San Antonio in the finals, but the 12-day wait for the league finals to begin was the longest in history before a championship series. Riley was less concerned that his team would be sluggish physically than he was that the players "might have forgotten what it felt like when they won those first eight games, what a terrific feeling it was to be riding so high."
To remind them, Riley drew on his experience as a former Laker broadcaster to put together a six-minute video highlight tape of L.A. playoff victories, the 1980 defeat of the Sixers, as well as this spring's games. Riley opened with footage from the sweeps of the Suns and the Spurs to Dan Hartman's Instant Replay, picked up the tempo with highlights of the '80 series to Ashford & Simpson's Make It Work Again, then brought the program to a stirring conclusion with a succession of L.A. fast breaks to the pulsating beat of Trammps, asking the musical question Where Do We Go from Here? When Riley tried out the tape on assistant coaches Mike Thibault and Bill Bertka, "Mike got really jacked up," Riley said, "and Billy had tears in his eyes. We showed it to the players right before the start of the game, and they really seemed to respond to it. Of course, it was right after that that they went out and played that bad first half."
The 76ers had received a rousing welcome back from the dead before Game 1 by a sellout Spectrum crowd that six days earlier had seemingly abandoned the team during its Game 6 loss to Boston in the Eastern Conference finals. And, for a half anyway, Philadelphia had the opener under control, dictating the pace with relentless defensive pressure at one end and offensive fireworks by Erving, Darryl Dawkins and Bobby Jones at the other. Dawkins came in midway through the first quarter and scored eight points in just over five minutes on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The Sixers' 11-point halftime lead grew to 15 early in the third period as Erving put on one of his aerial shows. He threw one shot in backward over his head, converted a fast-break layup and slammed in an alley-oop pass from Bobby Jones to put Philadelphia up 69-54. The 76ers were able to nurse that lead for nearly five minutes before the bottom fell out. The Lakers began executing Bertka's half-court trap defense, forcing the Sixers to use up the 24-second clock trying to find a decent shot. "You get in a situation where you take the shot that's left," Erving said, "and if you miss it and then don't go to the offensive boards, the other team is off and running."
No team has ever pushed the ball up the floor with greater speed and skill than Los Angeles has for the past five weeks. "We knew if they got defensive rebounds they were going to go with it," said Bobby Jones. "We just couldn't keep up with them. They had three or four people on the break, sometimes five. We'd always try to get a couple of guys back, but they moved the ball so well it seemed like at least three of them touched it every time down. When that happens, you become indecisive about who to guard."
The Lakers rocked the 76ers back on their heels by closing a 15-point deficit in only three minutes and 55 seconds near the end of the third quarter, in which the Lakers outscored the 76ers 17-2 to tie things at 87. Then, in just over six minutes, Los Angeles built its lead to 16 points. Bob McAdoo, the Lakers' first forward off the bench, came in with 6:55 to go in the third quarter with Philly leading 79-64. When he left with 7:49 remaining in the game, L.A. was ahead 108-92. A 31-point turnaround. Where there's a McAwill, there's a McAway. During that stint Mac scored eight points, stole a pass and got three rebounds. All in all he had 14 points in the game. Jamaal Wilkes and Norm Nixon each scored 24 and Abdul-Jabbar 23.
"All this means is that we're going to have to make something happen," the Doctor said after the game. "We've been through a whole lot in the playoffs already; now we're going through some more."